This ancient “honey wine” is now the fastest growing alcoholic beverage
The word “mead” immediately conjures up images of Viking feasting tables and Game of Thrones-style castle halls, but it is in fact a far more ancient beverage, its roots tracing back to the African continent as far as 20,000 years ago. In its purest form, mead is honey wine, fermented in the same manner as grape-based wines and, according to federal regulations, it can only be produced by licensed wineries or dedicated wineries known as “meaderies.” Mead is the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage on the market today, outstripping sales of varietal wine and craft beer.
Traditional mead is made with honey, water and white wine yeast, sometimes with a bit of added acid to cut through the sweetness and balance the pH levels. Two slow fermentation cycles convert the natural sugars into alcohol — the result is then aged in glass carboys, stainless steel tanks or oak barrels for several months or even years.
But traditional mead is not alone. With its long history, myriad variations have appeared over the centuries. Meads spiced with cloves, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg or herbs like hops, rosemary, thyme and sage are called “metheglins.” Those fermented with fruits like blackberries, cherries, strawberries or raspberries are termed “melomels,” while “cysers” are made with apples or apple cider. Melomels of grapes or grape juice are called “pyments;” “hippocras” is a spiced and herbed pyment; “bochet” is made from carmelized honey; “braggots” are fermented with malted grain; and “sack” is a mead produced with alcohol levels nearing 20 percent.
There are, in fact, dozens of varieties of mead, from dry and off-dry to dessert-sweet and even sparkling, and it can be distilled to make a liqueur. During the winter holidays mulled mead is popular, fortified with brandy, citrus zest and spices, traditionally heated with a hot poker from the fireplace.
The colors of mead range from pale straw to a deep golden amber and flavors and aromas are terroir-driven, varying with the type of flowers visited by the bees to harvest their pollen. Meads display a clean, floral nose with flavor notes of fermented honey, flowers and nectar, and the fruits or spices and herbs added.
EXPERT WINE RECOMMENDATIONS
• STEVEN REITER
Binny’s Beverage Depot 670 Roosevelt Rd, Glen Ellyn (630 545-2550) 2015 Jezebel Pinot Noir (Ore.) $18. A classic fruit-forward Willamette Valley Pinot offering loads of plums, cherries, and red fruits with overtones of spice, earth and minerals. Clean acidity and light tannins lead to a smooth finish.
-2015 Domaine de la Janasse (France) $22. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignan bring an aromatic nose of black cherries, currants, violets and pepper while the dense palate sings with flavors of plums, currants and cherries. Tannins are silky and the finish persistent.
• SEAN CHAUDHRY
Hinsdale Wine Shop 12 E Hinsdale Ave., Hinsdale (630 654-9862)
-2014 Mel Soleil Reserve Chardonnay (Calif.) $28. Scents of pineapple, mango, vanilla and citrus blossoms prelude layered flavors of peaches, pears, apples, buttered toast, honey and vanilla. Oak and butter blend seamlessly with a vibrant acidity.
-2014 Alta Maria Pinot Noir (Calif.) $28. Spice-laden with a nose of berries nuanced by notes of chocolate, coffee, smoke and vanilla. A complex, dry palate with flavors of red and black berries and hints of toasty oak.